Why White People Shouldn’t Impose Their Feelings Into Conversations on Race

A person with a serious expression standing close to the camera and holding their hand up in a "stop" gesture.

A person with a serious expression standing close to the camera and holding their hand up in a “stop” gesture.

To be completely honest, talking about race and racial injustice makes me very uncomfortable.

Whenever someone brings up topics like police brutality, immigration, or protesting, I squirm a little.

The more they talk, I feel a pressure in my chest and a desire to swiftly exit the premises. All the while, I’m praying they don’t ask my opinion or say something so off-the-wall that I have to interject.

As a black writer who often writes about racial injustice, this may seem strange.

I’m very comfortable behind my keyboard. Writing the articles allows me to thoroughly research, organize my thoughts, and present information using the stylistic choices I feel are appropriate.

In a live conversation, I can’t organize my thoughts and present them in a clear manner as easily. I can’t always pull up quotes and statistics off the top of my head or walk away if the conversation goes rancid.

Truthfully, it isn’t the subject matter that bothers me – it’s the people who want to have these conversations who make me feel uncomfortable.

I hate having conversations on race with misinformed white people. Most of my experiences doing so have been quite unpleasant.

I’ve found that white people took comments too personally, as if I was blaming every societal injustice on the white people in the discussion. I wasn’t.

Still, they expressed feeling like they were under attack, feeling as if I was trying to make them feel guilty, and feeling tired of having these race-based discussions (which confuses me, since they were always the ones to bring up the discussion in the first place).

If you’re a white person and you’ve participated in conversations on race and racism, this might sound familiar. And you’re certainly not the only white person who has had such feelings arise in these discussions.

These white feelings, the feelings many white people have when they encounter conversations and situations involving race, make conversations on race difficult. Additionally, they are detrimental to progress in our society.

Here are four reasons why.

1. White Feelings Derail Productive Conversations

When I must have conversations about race with white people, I’m always aware of how many times they use the word “I.”

While “I” statements are useful for interpersonal communication, they can also be powerful tools used (sometimes accidentally) to disrupt or change the course of a conversation on systemic oppression.

Before bringing the word “I” into a conversation on race, white folks should ask themselves a few questions:

  • Am I asking for advice on how I can help eliminate the specific problem addressed in the conversation?
  • Am I being a supportive ally by checking the other white people involved in the conversations?
  • Or am I centering myself in a conversation that isn’t really about me?

When white people bring up their feelings, they often change the course of an otherwise productive conversation by making everyone in the discussion cater to their emotions.

These feelings leave little room for diving deeper into the discussion and brainstorming actions that can be taken to find solutions to problems.

In the time it took to coddle the upset white person, the conversation could’ve gone many other ways: It could have been a valuable learning experience for other participants involved. It could have won over a few potential allies. It could have led to change in a company’s culture to make it more inclusive, a healthier classroom environment, a safer neighborhood for children of color, or a decision to retrain of a violent city police.

When your feelings take precedence over social change, we have a serious problem.

See, whether a conversation on race is productive or it comes to a screeching halt, white people don’t have as much to lose. You already live in a society that’s friendly to your whiteness.

Because you benefit from white privilege, you don’t really even have to have these tough conversations. You might even just consider it a fun exercise in debate.

But it’s so much more than that to people of color. So disrupting a conversation that could benefit people of color is not only selfish, but it also means you are figuratively standing in the way of much-needed progress.

2. White Feelings Often Tone Police People of Color

Sometimes white people feel under attack in discussions on race, especially if the people of color involved are passionate.

Here’s the thing: Racial injustice physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially hurts us. Sometimes, it even kills us.

Therefore, when you ask my opinion on police brutality and I tell you a story about how my partner and his friend almost didn’t make it home one night because the police pulled their weapons on two unarmed black men, I’m likely going to tell this story with a heavy heart.

When another person of color tells you the story about how they had to change the name on their resume to a more “American-sounding” name before hiring managers started contacting them, they might tell that story with some frustration – especially if they are in a financial strain. 

This is one of many reasons why you should avoid tone policing when people of color express strong emotions on race-related topics.

These emotions are legitimate reactions to our reality. They are not personal attacks on your character. They aren’t actually about you at all.

Furthermore, tone policing also suggests that only certain “non-threatening” people of color can be involved in such conversations.

For example, you might prefer to speak to my pacifist father rather than my ex-con childhood friend (both black men) about systemic racism.

My father might tell you of stories growing up in the projects in Chicago in the ’70s, and how white students in his public school were encouraged by teachers and counselors to go to college, while black students were encouraged to find jobs after graduation – and he’ll do it with a calm, collected approach.

My childhood friend could give you a first-hand account of his experience as a black man in the penal system, his struggles to find employment, and the roadblocks he faced with registering to vote. (Despite only having a misdemeanor, he went through a long process to make sure he could vote after his release.)

His blackness and his criminal record strongly impacted his life. Searching for a job as a black person is hard enough; searching for one as a black person with a criminal record is harder – and studies show that it’s harder than a white man in a similar position.

He might become angry while telling his story, but it is an important story nonetheless.

Both of their stories offer unique perspectives about different examples of racism in our society. When you brush off passionate voices like my ex-con friend’s, you deny yourself access to varying perspectives.

Your exclusionary approach to conversations on race dismisses the experiences of many people who don’t live up to your expectations for what these conversations should entail.

Discussions on race are not about accommodating the white people involved.

These conversations can become heated, especially when people are addressing painful experiences – but getting heated doesn’t mean they can’t offer positive outcomes.

3. White Feelings Don’t Compare to the Reality of Racial Oppression

When you enter a conversation on race, you may feel uncomfortable, guilty, or upset.

In comparison, people of color feel unsafe in their environments, fearful for their lives, worried about their status in the country, or heartbroken from the loss of their loved ones due to a hate crime.

Your whiteness means you don’t experience this to the same extent – or at all, in many cases.  

If you think talking about police brutality is uncomfortable, imagine the fear that comes over many black people when we are pulled over. Many of us are thinking, “Am I next?” and wondering if we’ll receive the same fate as Sandra Bland or Freddie Gray.  

You may feel uncomfortable talking about microaggressions in the few minutes that you spend discussing it, but you have to understand that microaggressions are a daily discomfort (to say the least) for many people of color.

Additionally, I often see white people derail a conversation by bringing up how they “feel the same way” or they’ve been oppressed like people of color because they are also marginalized. But there are holes in this argument.

Even if you’re marginalized in another way and you want to talk about your oppression as a working-class person, as a queer person, as a woman, and so on, this isn’t always appropriate either.

At the end of the day, you’re forgetting three important things:

First, you still have white privilege.

Second, the conversation isn’t about how you are marginalized.

Third, people of color can also be working class, queer, women, and more, and their race intersects with other marginalized identities.

Because of how our various identities intersect, your feelings about how you “feel the same way” because you’re also marginalized aren’t exactly as similar as you think they are.

If you do want to find parallels and ways to relate your experience to that of a person of color, maybe you can find time to talk to them about it in another conversation.

Just be careful about dismissing their oppression or saying it’s the exact same thing. There may be parallels, but every person brings their unique experiences of privilege and oppression. In the future, you could also use these parallels to help other white people who are marginalized understand racial oppression.

4. White Feelings Keep Potential Allies From Taking Action

Many white people who willingly enter into conversations on race have great intentions for doing so: They want to become more informed about the issues, they want to help fight for racial justice, and/or they want to learn how to be a better ally, friend, or feminist.

However, they don’t realize that their feelings get in the way of accomplishing these good intentions.

When white people have feelings that contradict the evidence that people of color bring to a conversation about oppression, they hold themselves back from becoming a better-informed ally.

Rather than allowing these bothersome feelings to interfere, why not learn how to manage them and use them to further your goals?

First, you’ll need to address and process these emotions. Here are a few tips on how to do that without disrupting a conversation.

Once you’ve gotten your own feelings in check, it’s time to use them to your advantage in your goals for racial justice. Your feelings and your whiteness make you relatable to other white people. So you can help other white people manage their feelings.

Next time you see a white person derailing a conversation on race, you can say something like, “You know, I used to feel that way, too,” and you can explain to them why you no longer feel this way.

You can also add, “Honestly, this really isn’t the time to address your feelings. We should really let so-and-so speak, as they have personal encounters with racial oppression. Why don’t the two of us talk about it later so this important conversation can continue?”

When you add to a conversation in this way, the conversation can carry on, and the people involved can learn something new.

Additionally, if you talk to other white people about their feelings, you can help educate others who also want to be better allies.

***

We need to have these important discussions – and by “we,” I mean you. I’m quite clear on how racial oppression works. I live through it. I research it. I see it happening in front of my eyes.

But if you participate in and contribute to a conversation on race in the ways I just suggested, you foster progress.

At their best, these discussions educate, uplift, and spread to other people and communities who need them. These conversations help raise awareness. They are the building blocks for social change and should not be squelched by a white person’s feelings.

So before you interject during a discussion on race, please make sure you’re doing it in a way that encourages learning and supporting the people of color in the discussion.

Shae Collins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She enjoys educating and uplifting by aiming a black feminist lens at pop culture on her blog. She’s been published in EBONY, Ms. Magazine, For Harriet, and Blavity. Laugh with her on Twitter @ShaeCWrites. Read her articles here.